"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich (John F. Kennedy)."
Contrary to popular cultural lip service, we are not all created equally. Some are tall. Some are short. Some are large and some are slight. A few have the gift of genetic beauty, while others do not. A few are born with precious metal tableware in their mouths, and many are born into poverty. We are unequal from birth and increasingly the circumstances established at that time will probably determine if we ever get a fair shot at success in life.
Compare the lives of two children in American, one born into poverty in an urban slum and the other born into privilege in the suburbs. From birth, the two children will experience very different realities. If he even survives his first year (babies born in the intercity in America have an infant mortality rate almost twice as high as other babies in America (1)), the child from the slum probably faces immediate disadvantages such as being born to a mother who received little or no prenatal care. Many intercity areas do not have grocery stores stocked with such basic food items as fresh fruit and vegetables. The underprivileged child will contend with inadequate nutrition from the minute of his birth. Surrounded on a daily basis by despair and/or violence, he will never know the feeling of security. He will grow up learning one has to embrace violence as a means of self-preservation, thus ensuring a vicious cycle of devastation.
When the child from the slums goes to school, he will attend an institution that is far inferior to most other schools in terms of academic standards. His stressed teachers will be underpaid and harried in overcrowded classrooms. Those students who cannot swim by themselves are left to sink. He will be further educationally disadvantaged by a prevalent culture that has become apathetic about the American dream. Why try to learn anything when you can’t go anywhere anyway? If by some miracle the child manages to rise above his environment, do well in school and get into college, he will be saddled with student loan debts that will hobble him for a significant portion of his working life.
The child born to prosperity has an entirely different experience in the world. Excellent prenatal care precedes his entry into the world, where for the first few months of his life his nutrition will be carefully monitored as he attends Mommy and Me classes. If his mother works, a thoroughly-screened and qualified nanny will be on hand to cater to his every whim.
During his primary years of schooling, he will be treated to a comprehensive private education, specifically-targeted to get him into the best college. He will have classrooms with student-teacher ratios that allow for individual attention. If he suffers from any hardship, his parents will employ tutors, counselors and specialists to make sure that he reaches his optimum potential. When he gets accepted into college, mummy and daddy will have an education fund available that will pay for all of his expenses.
As the child from the ghetto and the child of privilege enter adulthood to become productive members of society, who could insist the two are on equal footing? But that is exactly what free market advocates would have us do.
Invoking twisted Darwinian logic - which is particularly vexing since the same adherents almost always simultaneously dismiss the scientific fact of evolution – neoliberal dogma contends that our essential equality creates a level playing field in which the fittest will thrive and rise to the top of society. Those who do not prosper have nobody but themselves to blame. The poor are lazy and looking for a hand out. By offering the underprivileged basic human necessities, like shelter, food, clothing and a modest monthly stipend to live off, we are only encouraging sloth, so the theory goes.
Having spent a large portion of the past 20 years living and working in developing countries, I have spent a lot of time with poor people of all races. Unlike the conservative assessment, I discovered human beings almost universally want to contribute in meaningful ways to their communities. The poor are almost invariably hard working. Many hold down two or more grueling jobs. Perhaps the gravest insult is that heaved upon “welfare mothers.” Why is it okay for a wealthy woman to choose to be a stay at home mom, while a poor woman is expected to work in a menial job outside the home to make ends meet? In my life, I have encountered few souls whom I would consider to be “unemployable” or “lazy,” and the exceptional few are more likely to be the unwitting victims of mental illness rather than indolent good-for-nothings.
In the recent mid-term election, Republicans paid a lot of lip service to cutting government spending. A quick perusal of their targeted budget items include spending cuts in education, Medicaid, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowment for the Arts, The U.S. Agency for International Development. All in all, Republicans are proposing cuts of $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years in the name of austerity. We need to tighten our belts, they contend. But, there are no proposed cuts for subsidies to the wealthiest corporations on Earth, like Exxon. In fact, the economic burden born by the richest among us will be dramatically reduced in the form of tax cuts and credits. Apparently only the poor and middle class need to be austere in these pressing times.
The truth that is not widely reported by Republicans or the corporate-owned media is that not providing for the poor and underprivileged is a very misguided and false economy. The political sound bytes sound appealing. None of us wants to send our hard-earned tax dollars to human parasites who just want to mooch off the system. But the truth is that by not providing for the poor and underprivileged, we are creating a larger economic and societal burden for ourselves.
How desperate would you be as a parent if, in spite of all your efforts, you could not get a job, your unemployment insurance ran out, your rent was due, and you were out on the street with your children? Would you steal food or even someone’s wallet to put food in your children’s mouths? I would. In fact since President Clinton “reformed” the welfare system, crime has exploded and the number of individuals now in the corrections system, including those in jail, on probation and on parole, has doubled (2). With approximately 1 in every 100 Americans now in prison (1 in 31 is in the corrections system), the United States now has the unflattering distinction of having the largest documented per capita jail population on Earth (3). If a person is born into poverty, the statistics are even more grim. One in every 36 Hispanics and possibly as many as 1 in 15 African Americans is now jailed (4). Instead of writing welfare checks, we are sending money to the state penitentiaries. The average cost of imprisonment runs about $29 thousand annually per inmate, and this figure does not include the external costs of law enforcement and the judicial system.
Something about austerity doesn’t bode well for society. People who are desperate and disenfranchised by society have nothing to lose by becoming career criminals. Cutting aid to the poor is false economy and does not save taxpayers money. Such actions simply redirect society’s cash from charitable causes into the highly lucrative private prison industry. Who would you rather support? I personally would like to endow every child with every tool necessary to assure he reaches his maximum potential rather than leaving him to the proverbial dogs and supporting him as a career criminal for the rest of his life.
In reality, elite conservatives don’t really believe we are all equal. They think they are better than everyone else. They aren’t alone. All those people who elected the new Republican House of Representatives hoping to “cut spending” were also looking down their noses at the poor and underprivileged. Ironically, many of those same voters are not very well off themselves. While we can certainly blame these voters for their prejudicial attitudes, we also have to admit they are merely products of a culture that bases a person’s value on their net worth.
In the United States of America, all people are not equal, but in a moral and just society, everybody should have a right to equal treatment and opportunity. In a country that prides itself on these values, we should at least ensure that every child born in America has access to a safe, clean roof over his head, a good education, clean water, nutritious food, a safe environment, clean air and a college education if he is academically so-inclined. Until such a time that these basic necessities of human decency are met, we should spit in the faces of anyone who judge and condemn the poor to lives of misery from their elitist ivory towers.
1- Statistic from the World Wide Web at http://articles.cnn.com/2006-05-08/health/mothers.index_1_mortality-rate-death-rate-world-s-mothers?_s=PM:HEALTH
2- Statistics from Pew Research by Reuters on the World Wide Web at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5215TW20090302
3- Statistics from the World Wide Web at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/28cnd-prison.html